People have this funny habit of asking me where I’m going. My answer’s always the same. “In circles” I tell them. Sometimes I wonder why they wanted to know in the first place. Maybe it’s the over-sized backpack I’m always carrying. Maybe it’s the dirty shoes. Maybe it’s because I’m always glancing over my shoulder mid-conversation, to see if anyone’s looking. Still, I think it’s because , to them, I look lost. Every time I catch my reflection in a rear-view mirror, even I’m surprised at how restless I look when I’m not, how anxious I only seem.
At 22 years old, I’ve lived in thirty-seven different places and counting. Lived, meaning more than four months. If you do the math, that’s almost twice a year–if we’re not including the places Mom brought me when I was too young to really get it. I suppose that’s where I got it from, that leaving. It’s what I’ve been doing my whole life. It’s like, whenever I’ve been somewhere too long, my legs begin to ache, like growing pains past twenty. Then my choice is easy; I take one step away from civilization and, thumb flagging, toward the nearest highway. Someone is always nice enough to offer me a lift.
For the first time in a while, the sun is bright. I’d missed the token “Welcome to…” sign on the way in, so all I know is that I’m somewhere in the middle of British Columbia, riding alongside a quiet couple always holding hands.
“You’re sure we can’t take you into the city?”
“Really, here’s great.”
People are nice. These two stay and watch as I stomp off into a patch of trees, the sound of their tires turning gravel echoing only when I’m out of sight. I never look back, but I like to imagine their confusion, at this strange girl disappearing into the brush.
It’s the mountains that always bring me back. I like standing at their base, so I can experience that strength, the kind that seeps deep into the bones. It always brings me comfort, to know some things never change. I’ll never forget the first time I saw them, so long ago, young me deciding that they were the upturned faces of a lost people who, looking up at the stars, had forgotten to look down again.
“Where’re you headed?”
I’d come through the trees to a welcome gas bar with bad, but free, coffee. Two mornings without it had done wonders, but beggars can’t be choosers.
“How about you?”
“Oh, you know. Just sightseeing.” He gestures to an old soft-top, “ever been in a convertible?”
Instead of looking at the car, I look at him — his keen watery eyes and crooked nose. His big wrinkled hands and drooping ears like a hound. I can never tell if it’s these things that make me trust a person, but with him, they do the trick. “I have. Actually, one just like it.” Together we walk over to the car and he motions for me to let myself in, the whole vehicle shaking with his weight as he does the same.
“I hope you don’t mind,” he says, taking off his shoes and putting them in the backseat. His flannel shirt is untucked, his tan trousers slightly wrinkled. “I know it’s not really legal to be driving without shoes, but call me old-fashioned, I still like to feel the road under my feet.”
“Not at all,” I smile, taking off my own and throwing them into the backseat. He turns the key in the ignition and asks if I want a pepperoni stick. “There’s a bunch in the dash.” I grab one and he lets me eat in silence, flickering on and off with the radio. Every minute or two we catch eyes in the rear-view mirror, his filled with a mirth I didn’t think was possible in someone not actually laughing. Catching them again, I see a curiosity there too.
“Got a name, kiddo?”
“Kiddo’s fine.” There’s a familiarity between us that I don’t want to burst with my words. “I don’t think we’re going to get any reception,” he grins, finally giving up on the radio. “Guess it’s just us and the trees.”
Sometimes I can feel a story living inside someone, waiting to come out. As if it’s waiting – I know it sounds strange – for me. It sits, pulsating below the surface and, sometimes even before I say a word it’s already being told. Shared. And it doesn’t matter if I have a notebook or not, I write them down anyway, everything I can remember of them. Like a record no one is ever going to read.
I take out my notebook, bound with tape at the binding, my own curiosity brimming. Should just ask him for his story? He doesn’t seem like the type with anything to hide. His laugh is like a bark that fills the whole car when I ask. Part of me wishes the interior would cause it to echo — keep it in the air a bit longer.
“Well I can’t right well tell you all that!” he says. I tell him I only need one, if that makes it easier. He changes lanes, glancing at me through the rear-view mirror again. “You can call me Cal, if you like.”
“There was a girl I met some years ago,” he says after a few kilometers. “She would have been a bit younger than you, maybe 14?” He looks at me again through the mirror, eyes bright.
“I’m twenty-two.” I sit up taller.
“All grown now, are we?” He passes a semi-truck and a mini-van before continuing. I can’t help but hide my smile.
“I guess it would have been about eight years ago now, if memory serves. I had a lot more hair back then. I was driving along Interstate Highway Five and I saw her walking on the side of the road with a huge backpack, not unlike yours. I pulled up alongside and asked where she was going ‘Wherever you’re going, please. Long as it’s gone.’”
“I told her I was headed up the coast to Vancouver, and she just stepped right in, no fear in her. Didn’t mind either that I hadn’t room at the time for conversation, too much on my mind. We both stayed mostly quiet, listening to the radio like old friends. Only when the mountains began getting big do I remember her turning and smiling at me, with this huge grin and shining green eyes. First time I’d bothered to grin in a while.” He’s quiet again for a second, then:
“Not sure how long we drove for, but as the sky fell, she went clean asleep on the passenger side. In the morning, I found a little diner off the highway and woke her for breakfast. The waitress took our order, and we just sat looking out the window. I was thinking about how nice it was to be hearing the clink of coffee cups when, like something bit her, she jumped and began rummaging through the front pockets of her dress, pulling out this little notebook. For a second, it was like she had to decide on something. Then, without a doubt she asked if I wanted to hear a story. Well, I said of course I would.”
“I remember the look on her face when she was flipping through that book, like it was the most important thing to her. Not even a museum would take care of something so carefully. Anyway, it was a minute before she found a stained page with an old photo attached. Her voice surprisingly bold for all the quiet we’d been through, she began reading a story I would soon find out was hers, written by her younger self:
‘The very first time I hitchhiked, the man who picked me up looked like a police officer because of his moustache. That was the time I was still living with my Mama in Dakota. I didn’t like this new man she was seeing because he was so mean. We all moved to a new place but I didn’t like it at all. My old house had a park with swings, but this one just had an ugly road. So, I ran away to teach her a very important lesson.’
‘The man who picked me up drove a blue car with nice seats in there made of leather. Even though his car was nice though, I knew he was a sad man because his eyes were always watering. I asked him what was wrong and he said that an angel gave him those tears.’”
“She quieted for a second while the waitress brought us our food and, toast in one hand, continued with her story. ‘The man was on his way North. He said that he was going until he couldn’t go no more. He didn’t talk too much but I sure liked him a lot because he answered all of the questions that Mama never did. My favourite part of the trip was when we stopped at a park and he bought me a peach snow lick. He laughed at me because I got orange all over my dress, but I said I didn’t care ‘cause Mama wasn’t around to yell at me about it. Then he asked if I wanted to see a surprise. I got so excited that I jumped up and banged my darn knee on the picnic table!’
‘We walked away from the playground and found a woman with a big fancy camera around her neck. She seemed like a real nice lady though, so I asked if I could have one of the balloons she was holding. She said I could have one if I stood real still for a minute. Then my friend lifted me up on his shoulder and told me to smile. The lady took our picture two times, and she said because I was so good, I got to have two balloons! Then the man let me pick out which picture I liked best. I picked out the second one ‘cause the lady told us to make silly faces. He said I could have it, even though he liked that one best, I think.’
‘After that, he went to get us some water from the store, but when he came back he was real sad again. He said I had to go home. I told him that Mama didn’t care, but he said that she really did and that I should love her always. Then a real police officer who didn’t have a moustache came over to me and talked a lot on his radio. He asked me my name and when I told him, he said that I had to go home because Mama was worrying. I didn’t really think she was, but I promised that I would go back as soon as I said goodbye to my friend. I gave him a big hug and didn’t want to let go, but he said I had to leave with the real policeman. I only went because he said so. And the rest is history.’ I remember the smile on her face when she finished.
“‘That’s the first one I’ve ever told,’ she’d said. Then, like the spell had been broken, the waitress came to take our plates and the world around us filtered back in again, both of us drawn to the fog starting to build against the window. Without looking back at me, she asked me pretty sudden-like if it was okay that she leave me at the diner. It took me a second to hear her, but when I did I knew she wasn’t really asking. I said of course, but was sad to see her go. Such a sweet person, and so alone. Figured I could at least help her get where she was going, wherever that was, but I guess an old codger like me can’t keep a young girl occupied too long. Watched her walk out of the diner, thinking that maybe I would miss her more than she would miss me.”
He stops talking, eyes fixed on the road, his mind far away. I review my notes, making sure I haven’t missed anything. The radio signal finally steadies and Cal turns up the volume. Soon we’re surrounded by the deep swoon of a small-town country station, and my eyelids begin to get heavy. He tells me I’m welcome to sleep, and I allow myself to drift off to dreams of a small girl, of smashing china, of the warmth of leather bucket seats.
I wake up, still in the passenger seat, the mid-morning sun glaring through the windshield of the stationary vehicle, each of the windows slightly ajar. I look behind me to see if Cal is still sleeping there, but the backseat is empty except for my bag. A semi-truck passes loudly on my left, shaking the car. A green sign nearby tells me I am thirty-four kilometres from Whistler, parked on the side of the highway.
I get out and stretch, kicking dirt for about fifteen minutes before I begin to worry. Worry? Unfamiliar thoughts echo through my mind. What if he’s lost? What if he’s hurt? I pace around the car a couple times before realizing the keys are still in the ignition; that there’s a crumpled piece of paper taped to the steering wheel.
The paper is marked “Kiddo.”
I get out of the car and enter through the driver’s side door, settling into the leather bucket seat, my knees touching the low steering wheel. Opening the letter, a photo falls into my lap. The photo is of a little girl with strawberry blonde curls. She has a broad, toothy grin and playful green eyes. She is perched on the shoulder of a younger, hairier Cal, whose own grin covers the entire bottom half of his face. Teardrops stain the photograph, and it’s a while before I realize that they’re mine. I turn to the passenger seat, where my notebook still sits, and flip to one of the earliest pages – the page is stained with orange and smells faintly of peaches. Attached with a blue paperclip is a picture of the same strawberry blonde with the same green eyes.
I’m sticking my tongue out in the picture, and Cal has his eyes crossed.
I pick up the letter waiting patiently on my lap. Hoping for an inkling of where he’s gone, an idea of where we would meet again. I am not disappointed:
We’re trading places,
You and I.
It’s my turn to hitchhike,
And your turn to drive.